A year ago, on NASCAR’s Championship-4 weekend, Kyle Larson was hunkered down at the Hendrick Motorsports headquarters in Concord, North Carolina. Instead of being at a sprint car race—his usual weekend routine for most of 2020—he was watching the Cup Series championship race from Phoenix Raceway on TV.
What a difference a year makes. Indeed, it’s been a long, strange journey.
Larson goes into this weekend’s NASCAR finale among the four drivers still eligible for the Cup Series title. All he must do is outrun Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and defending series champion Chase Elliott. It doesn’t really matter where they finish overall on the 40-car rundown: the champion will be the driver who beats the other three finalists in the 500-kilometer, 312-mile race.
Looking for a favorite? Pay your money and take your chances:
• Hamlin has two Phoenix victories, 15 top-5s, and 19 top-10s in 32 career starts. He was third there in the spring.
• Truex Jr. won this year’s spring race, his only Phoenix victory in 31 starts. He also has four other top-5 finishes and 12 other top-10s at the cockeyed 1-mile track west of town.
• Elliott finished fifth in the spring race, one of four top-5 finishes in 11 career starts. The most important of his 13 career victories came there last fall, when he won the Cup Series title.
• Larson has only 14 starts at Phoenix, second-fewest to Elliott’s 11. His resume is solid, but not overly impressive: no victories, five top-5 finishes, and eight top-10s, including his seventh there in the spring.
Without question, Larson’s story is among the most compelling and controversial NASCAR sagas in years. To recap:
Larson was toiling for Chip Ganassi Racing in April of 2020 when he uttered the reprehensibly racist n-word during an on-line racing event on the Twitch streaming platform. Ganassi quickly fired him from his No. 42 Chevrolet and replaced him with retired former champion Matt Kenseth. (When Kenseth decided to not return this year, Ganassi promoted Ross Chastain from Xfinity to the Cup ride).
NASCAR banned Larson indefinitely from any of its series, which led personal and corporate sponsors to drop him from various contracts. Once considered among NASCAR’s rising young stars, Larson suddenly was left adrift with only his open-wheel, dirt-track programs to support him and his family. As successful as he was in dirt-track cars, it was a long way from the success, rewards, and prestige of NASCAR’s top series.
Undaunted, he faced up to his mistake and started making amends.
“I made a mistake and said a word that should never, ever be said and there’s no excuse for that,” he said on his Twitter account. “I wasn’t raised that way (in his Japanese American family). It’s an awful thing to say and I feel sorry for my family, my friends, my partners, the NASCAR community and especially, the African American community. I understand the damage is probably unrepairable and I own up to that. But I want to let you all know how sorry I am and I hope everybody is staying safe during these crazy (pandemic) times.”
Larson set about working to rebuild his image and salvage his career. He volunteered with a youth-focused nonprofit in the Twin Cities and with the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia. The leaders of those organizations—Tony Sanneh in the Twin Cities and Anthony Martin in Philadelphia—often reported that Larson seemed genuinely contrite, that his outreach to the African American community was sincere and undeniable.
“There was a lot of stuff I did to educate myself and make myself a better person,” he told NBC Sports in a mid-season interview. “I feel like last year was humbling, and I like that. I’m a normal person just blending in, and that was a good thing. That was always important to me to give back and educate myself.”
“There was a lot of stuff I did to educate myself and make myself a better person.”
Quietly and very much under the radar, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick began weighing the risk/reward of offering Larson a second chance. After reviewing his off-track activities and being satisfied with his efforts to rehabilitate himself, NASCAR agreed to reinstate Larson as of January 1, 2021.
“Obviously, I wish last year didn’t happen, but in a lot of ways I’m glad because it helped me grow as a person,” Larson said at the time. “It brought me a lot closer to my friends and family and other people I’ve never talked to before. It helped to educate me. It’s a great teaching moment for my children as well as other kids growing up. Life was terrible for a few weeks (after being fired and suspended), but as I got through the lowest of it, I realized there was going to be good that came of it.”
The good came in late October 2020, when Hendrick gave Larson a two-year contract (since extended through 2023) to drive his company’s flagship No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro. (That was the number on Hendrick’s very first Cup car with Geoffrey Bodine in 1984). Larson became the company’s fourth driver, joining Elliott, Alex Bowman, and William Byron. In effect, Larson took the seat left vacant when seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson retired from NASCAR after the 2020 season.
“Kyle is unquestionably one of the most talented race car drivers in the world,” Hendrick told the media last fall. “He has championship-level ability and will be a significant addition to our on-track program. More importantly, I have full confidence that he understands our expectations and will be a tremendous ambassador for our team, our partners and NASCAR.
“I’ve had many, many conversations with Kyle and I’m confident about what’s in his heart and his desire to be a champion in all aspects of his life and career. He’s done important work over the past six months, and we’re going to support those continued efforts.”
So far, so good. Hendrick couldn’t have imagined that Larson and first-time crew chief Cliff Daniels would dominate in their first season together. They carry nine “official” victories and an additional non-points all-star victory into Phoenix this weekend. They’ve put together a pair of three-race winning streak, something nobody has done since Dale Earnhardt in his 1987 championship season.
The Larson/Daniels pairing won at Las Vegas in March, then won consecutive summer races at Charlotte, Sonoma, and Nashville. They also won at Watkins Glen and Bristol before another three-victory streak at Charlotte, Texas, and Kansas. Nine of Larson’s 15 career victories have come this season with Daniels, a far better start than Johnson and former crew chief Chad Knaus enjoyed their first year together, in 2002.
Will Larson and Daniels win 83 races and seven championships like Johnson and Knaus? Probably not. But feel free to look around for a better feel-good motorsports story than this one. Especially if they win on Sunday in Phoenix.
Source: Read Full Article